The Pipeline: The Sephora Innovation Manager Pushing The Beauty Giant's Tech Forward

Refinery29 is proud to present The Pipeline, our monthly commitment to highlighting young women who aren’t just making it in Silicon Valley — they’re thriving. This is your chance to hear the stories of the product designers, researchers, and engineers who are driving innovation and setting the stage for generations to come. These are the future faces of tech.
Nelly Mensah is the kind of person who’s so smart, she’s already three steps ahead of what the person she’s talking to is saying or thinking.
Consider the complexities of cryptocurrency: Mensah can break down what the technologies behind Bitcoin and Ethereum are and how they work, but she also anticipates what your next question is and answers it before you have a chance to ask.
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When that happens, as it often does, you get the sense that the wheels in her mind are turning much faster than normal, as if she’s constructing an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that strings one idea to the next at warp-speed. But the words that come out of her bold, red-lipped mouth are not overly complicated or jumbled: They’re logical and succinct. That's not easy, especially when it comes to the world of tech and crypto.
Cryptocurrency is just a side gig, though. So is her love for creating colorful fashion illustrations of women in broad fuchsia skirts and rainbow-striped dresses. Mensah, 32, is a full-time senior manager in Sephora’s Innovation Lab. The Lab, established in March 2015, is charged with keeping the cosmetics company on the cutting edge of tech industry trends via shopper interactions in-store, at home, and on-the-go. When the Lab launched, Sephora rolled out Pocket Contour, an early app released at the height of the contouring craze that let users upload a selfie and get a step-by-step tutorial on applying the makeup, specific to their face shape. (Kim Kardashian would be proud.)
Although Sephora is not usually grouped with tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, and Google, it has something those companies should envy: The retailer has earned acclaim for achieving a female majority in technical roles. According to a 2017 Wall Street Journal report, 62% of the retailer’s tech employees are women. (Sephora declined to provide an updated figure for this piece.) This figure is roughly three times that of top Silicon Valley tech companies: At Apple, only 23% of women are in technical roles, while the number drops to 20% at Google and 19% at Facebook.
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Mensah's role as a manager at the Lab requires staying up-to-date on the latest tech, and knowing about the emerging technologies set to shape the world in ways most of us can’t even imagine yet. Mensah says the latter is what keeps her excited on a day-to-day basis, even though she never imagined she’d be doing this kind of work.
Mensah’s career has been defined by a series of pivots that emphasize the value of experimentation and following an unconventional path. As a young girl growing up in Smolensk, a Russian city located about 220 miles west of Moscow, Mensah dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her Russian mother and Ghanaian father both worked in medicine, and she spent hours flipping through their anatomy books and learning about different diseases during elementary school, while her peers played on swing sets and slides.
It wasn’t until Mensah encountered her first computer at a friend’s birthday party when she was nine that she “became obsessed” with drawing objects in an older version of Windows Paint. The program, and others like it, combined her passion for visual design with a newfound interest in coding. In the 1990s, over a decade before a string of modern-day programs popped up encouraging girls to learn the skill, Mensah was already working ahead of the curve.
When her family moved to Ghana for her middle and high school years, she immediately signed up for a computer science class and started solving more complex problems. She designed her first video game screens in Paint, depicting a girl who lived in a mushroom-shaped house with various rooms players could explore. Although Mensah was the only girl in her advanced level classes, the distinction wasn’t one she fretted over. She looked on the bright side: “When we went on school trips, I always got a hotel room all to myself.”
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When it came time to choose a college, she decided not to follow many of her peers to East Coast American schools. Instead, she plunged into the culture shock of life in California, at Stanford. Although the distance prevented her from visiting before applying and accepting admission, she liked the university’s focus on entrepreneurship and its position near Silicon Valley. Oh, and “the palm trees on the brochure definitely helped.”
Once there, she picked up “a zillion side jobs”, including freelance graphic and web design (she designed some of the dozens of posters hung around campus at any given time) and experimentation with emerging tech in the Stanford VR lab. She majored in management science and engineering, with the thinking that a 360-degree approach to tech was critical for achieving impact: “Tech is awesome is because it helps solve challenges people have. But the tech won’t be able to do that unless it’s usable and well designed with people in mind.”
After graduating at the height of the recession in 2008, Mensah spent five years in Deloitte’s San Francisco working on user experience. Then, she returned to school, this time heading east to MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In the summer between her first and second years, Mensah received internship offers from top-tier tech companies, including Microsoft and Google, which most of her classmates would jump at. But she turned them down in favor of the unknown: “I decided to experiment a little bit, I wanted to do something outside of my comfort zone.”
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Instead of returning to the tech scene on the west coast, she went to Italy. There, she worked on digital strategy for Kering, the luxury group that owns major fashion brands such as Balenciaga, Gucci, and Saint Laurent. It was then that she started to become passionate about tech’s increasing impact on retail and online consumers.
A year after Mensah finished business school, she was introduced to Sephora through MIT’s MBA alumni network. She joined Sephora’s Innovation Lab in October 2016, a little over a year-and-a-half after the team was founded. The move fit with her personal interests: Mensah, who has always loved fashion, fun colors, and eyeshadow, now describes herself as a skincare junkie, too. The lab also offered the stylish beauty fan a place to combine her consumer interest with her desire to create forward-thinking products. “The reason why [the job] is such a great fit is because of the approach the lab takes,” Mensah says. ”There is no [using] tech for tech’s sake.”
While Mensah cannot talk about her current projects, most of which are internal and proof of concept, she points to Virtual Artist, a 3D in-app experience that lets people “try on” lipsticks and eyeshadows straight from their phone (and minus makeup remover wipes), as an example of a recent Lab innovation. It put Sephora on the map as an early adopter of AR beauty experiences, which other brands, including CoverGirl and Benefit Cosmetics, have since adopted, in the race to create a more customizable makeup experience.
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For Mensah, the experience of working at Sephora’s Innovation Lab has been a noticeable change from her consulting days, particularly because of the company’s gender balance in its technical roles: “Having really high-powered female executives in tech as role models has shifted my perspective of what’s possible when it comes to work-life balance.”
Outside of her day job, Mensah is working to get more women and minorities involved in another area of interest, cryptocurrency. She co-runs a bi-weekly meetup, where over 700 registered members gather to learn more about the evolving industry from engineers and developers. She likes that most of technology is open-source, promoting a “spirit of access and inclusion.”
Ultimately, Mensah is not sure where she wants to end up in her career, but remains heavily invested in the future of tech – particularly its beauty-industry intersections: “It would be impossible for me to look away.”
Mensah’s Advice For Anyone Choosing Between Working At A More Traditional Tech Company And A Less Traditional Tech Company
Think About The User
“Consider what type of product and what type of customer you’re passionate about the most. When you relate to the product and brand on a personal level, it makes the job so much more meaningful and exciting.”
Evaluate The Responsibilities
“Think about the type of technology you nerd out on and what scope of responsibility you’d like to have. I’d argue that the type of impact you can have at a less traditional tech company can often be larger.”
Continuously Ask Yourself Questions
“Remember that no decision is permanent and it’s perfectly normal to switch jobs several times in your career. Reflect on where you think you might want to be a few years from now and focus on getting the right skills for that job. Check in with yourself every few months: Am I learning? Am I solving problems I’m excited about? Am I growing and gaining the type of experience that will take me to the next step? Make an action plan based on your answers.”
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